The Great Bieberization: How the Kids Took Over
Envy is the subterranean companion of every writer I know. And, I am no exception. When I was toiling through my first years of graduate school in English, it was the era of Jonathan Safran Foer and Zadie Smith, just-out-of-college wunderkinds who were picking up fat publishing contracts and fawning reviews while I was struggling to make sense out of Derrida, Zizek, and my similarly embittered fellow graduate students. Safran Foer and Smith were photogenic and talented and, well, young, really young. They seemed to herald the dawning of a new age during which twentysomethings would reign over the publishing world.
Sure, I thought, J.D. Salinger and Philip Roth were relative neophytes when they started publishing, but at least they had had the dignity to wait until they finished college to pick up an agent. From what I had heard, Safran Foer had been getting advice from seasoned megawatt authors and plotting his meteoric rise from the time he was in diapers. Today, ten years or so after the ascent of these young guns of the writing world, the idea of beginning to build a career in your early twenties seems positively quaint. Nowadays, if you don’t have a book contract or a reality television series by the time you’re out of the womb, you might as well give up the ghost. By pre-school, the bloom is off the rose, kid.
It’s pretty obvious that our pop cultural scene is 100% Bieberized. I know more about Justin Beiber’s eternally windswept locks and fresh-faced lesbianical visage that I do about the crisis in Haiti or our new healthcare bill. But, Justin Bieber and his hair do not alone herald the apocalypse. After all, the phenomenon of the Tiger Beat heartthrob is not a new one. A ritual of pre-adolescent girlhood is the crowning of an unintimidating, androgynous boy musician who looks like he could safely usher teen girls to the threshold of puberty, but not a step further (to support this thesis, see: Hanson, Kirk Cameron, and Donny Osmond, respectively-all good Christian boys, as well as safe fantasy objects).
What is much scarier to me than pop icon Bieber (although Bieber does sort of scare me) is the rise of a new class of kid artists, authors, cultural commentators, and pundits, canny self-promoters who have become famous before they have taken their PSATs. There’s Kyle Williams, “America’s Youngest Political Pundit” and the author of Seen and Heard (get it? get it?). Kyle enjoys team sports, being homeschooled, and “exposing the leftist agenda at work in our nation.” There’s also Jonathan Krohn, dubbed “Little Mr. Conservative” by his fans, perhaps in an unconscious homage to “Little Miss Sunshine.” Krohn makes regular appearances on Fox News and at a variety of national conservative political conferences. Despite being 13 and a born-again Baptist, he also bears a disturbing resemblance to Commentary and National Review lynchpin, Irving Kristol.
While it’s weird to see kids as miniature Glenn Becks, it’s even stranger to recognize the power that pre-teens wield in the fashion and publishing industries. Tavi Gevinson, a world-weary 14 year old fashion blogger, has become a staple of Fall Fashion Week and the experimental fashionista set. The avant-garde designers, Rodarte, credit Gevinson with bringing their line to a wider audience and the teen was recently invited to help the designers introduce their new, youth-inspired line at Target. And, how can we forget Kaavya Viswanathan, the high school-aged author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life? Even if Viswanathan’s novel was eventually discredited after a number of passages were found to be “borrowed” from other chick lit fare, the publicity blitz surrounding her best-selling novel heralded a new, youth-obsessed era in the publishing world. Fifteen year olds write and sell young adult novels every day, and are beginning to stream into the grownup publishing market.
What does it mean that our culture is coming to be defined by younger and younger voices? Should we fear the dawning of the “Age of the Kindergartner,” when six year olds put down their Legos and pick up their existential angst in order to write a roman a clef about pottytraining? In some way, the answers to these questions are simple. We live in a country and an economic system that prizes novelty above all else. Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer and Kaavya Viswanathan were new once, but have become gradually less new. And, as writers and artists and cultural commentators become obsolete, the industry looks for ever younger and newer faces to replace them. But, it seems to me that something else is happening, too. As a curmudgeonly granny who has had all too many years to incubate away from the spotlight, I can’t help but think that putting pressure on kids to develop a self-mythology suitable for packaging and selling at a young age could have dire consequences. If you peak at 13, where do you have to go but Lindsay Lohan-ville? If you’re famous at 15, don’t you risk missing all the years of alienation and suffering and empathy that allow you to produce good art? I’m not sure of the answers to all these questions, but I am certain that my future children won’t be allowed to get an agent until they’re in middle school; it’s the least a parent can do.
Photo by kindofadraa
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